East Germany transformed since fall of Wall
9 November 2004 COTTBUS - Former communist East Germany has been transformed for the better 15 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall even though big problems remain including high unemployment and a worrying tendency of voters to back extremist parties.Despite the successful introduction of democracy, a market economy and the Herculean task of rebuilding decrepit infrastructure for 14 million people it‘s still easy to focus on what‘s bad in eastern Germany - and the media often takes a negative line
9 November 2004
COTTBUS - Former communist East Germany has been transformed for the better 15 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall even though big problems remain including high unemployment and a worrying tendency of voters to back extremist parties.
Despite the successful introduction of democracy, a market economy and the Herculean task of rebuilding decrepit infrastructure for 14 million people it‘s still easy to focus on what‘s bad in eastern Germany - and the media often takes a negative line on the region.
Grumbling is common because people have short memories, insists Gudrun Schneider, a spry 73-year-old former bank employee.
As a mother of two children, Schneider said the biggest change was that the old shortages of East Germany are history.
"Twenty years ago my biggest concern was finding fresh fruits and vegetables to keep my girls healthy," said Schneider who lives in the city of Cottbus, south of Berlin near the Polish border.
Eastern German shops may be full of fresh food and everything else since the Berlin Wall came down - but the region‘s economic data still make for grim reading.
Take jobs: Unemployment in former West Germany is 8 percent, compared with 18 percent for eastern Germany where the jobless rate hits a staggering 25 percent in hard hit rural areas.
This is despite net state capital transfers to the region since the 1990 German reunification of about EUR 1.2 trillion.
Most economists agree that replacing the soft East German mark with former West Germany‘s hard D-mark at a rate of one-to-one and imposing tough West German regulations helped kill the communist state‘s creaking industry.
Germany‘s chronic low domestic demand, an export-led economy and the dot-com crash of 2000-2001 didn‘t help, nor did the abrupt end of the post-unity construction boom by the late 1990s.
All this heavily impacted on Cottbus, which is one of the major problem areas in the east.
With an unemployment rate of 21.3 percent it has the worst urban joblessness in Brandenburg state and has lost tens of thousands of residents who have gone west for work - part of the two million east Germans who have left since 1991, according to official figures.
Population is slumping still further due to radically declining birth rates: state officials confirmed last month there are 50 percent fewer children in Cottbus than there were 10 years ago.
Heavy industry in the area, including brown coal mining and one of eastern Germany‘s biggest power plants have shed thousands of workers after being privatised and sold to Swedish energy giant Vattenfall.
But historic downtown Cottbus, which before unity was crumbling, has been superbly restored and the medieval "Alter Markt" or Old Market is an example of what state and private investment billions have achieved since unification.
Frank Dressler, a 34-year-old factory worker, insists east Germans have learned through such hardship and have an advantage over their western counterparts because they earn less and are more flexible.
"Wages in western Germany are clearly too high," said Dressler with a dismissive wave of his hand, adding: "We live more modestly and can get by on a wage of EUR 10 or 12 an hour."
Average hourly wages in western Germany are at least 20 percent higher and German Federal President Horst Koehler recently drew fire by suggesting that such differences would have to remain.
Dressler backs the President and rejects calls to raise wages in eastern Germany because he says keeping costs low prevents jobs from leaving for Poland which is a 30 minute drive from Cottbus.
But if Cottbus struggles with a gritty legacy including too many ugly, prefabricated "plattenbau" apartment blocks, a number of other far more glittering eastern German cities are poised for a boom.
This includes Leipzig, which has attracted new automobile plants from BMW and Porsche and its expanded airport may become the hub for DHL air cargo‘s European operations and Dresden which has drawn billion of euros of investment from US chipmaker AMD and the hyper-modern assembly plant for VW‘s luxury Phaeton automobile.
The recent victory of the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) in Saxony state - which has close ties to neo-Nazis - and the anti-foreigner German People‘s Union (DVU) in Brandenburg has set alarm bells ringing.
But despite eastern Germany‘s ongoing political, economic and social problems, most people still believe strongly the 9 November 1989 opening of the wall and 1990 unification were vital steps forward.
An Emnid Agency poll shows 79 percent of Berliners say the collapse of the Berlin Wall was a "happy event".
Meanwhile, an Allensbach poll demolishes the stereotype that eastern and western Germans still don‘t like each other.
Subject: German news